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Oakland’s Art and Soul Festival Canceled This Year Due to City Funding Delay

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Six musicians perform under tent
Oaktown Jazz Workshops' Performance Ensemble at Art and Soul in 2019. (Photo © David De Hart)

Oakland’s Art & Soul Festival, an annual tradition spanning over two decades, has been canceled this year.

Festival organizers announced the event’s cancellation with a message of apology, citing “a months-long delay in funding support from the City of Oakland that had been approved by the Oakland City Council.”

Organizers stated their plan to use remaining funds to plan ahead for next year’s event, which they hope to bolster with additional funding. Aside from a temporary pause during the pandemic, this year’s cancellation is the festival’s first.

Since its first event in 2001, Oakland’s Art & Soul Festival has become one of Oakland’s flagship events, reflecting the city’s rich legacy of musicians, artists, poets and activists and drawing thousands of attendees to downtown Oakland each summer. Past headliners have included Roy Ayers, George Duke, Angie Stone and Tower of Power, as well as rock acts like My Chemical Romance and New Found Glory.

On a Facebook post announcing the cancellation, the community’s heartbreak was apparent. “The Edwin Hawkins Gospel Stage at Art & Soul was one of the the highlights of the year for the Gospel music community in Oakland. The mayor and city leadership should be ashamed,” wrote one user.

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Kev Choice is a lifelong Oaklander, musician, public educator and the vice chair of Oakland Cultural Affairs Commission — an advisory group that exists to sustain Oakland’s arts and culture ecosystem. He believes the blame lies beyond any individual.

Kev Choice on stage at Hiero Day in Frank Ogawa Plaza, Oakland, Sept. 4, 2023. (Eric Arnold/KQED)

“Because of severe lack of staffing, backlogs and city bureaucracy, the money hasn’t been administered to [Oakland Art and Soul Festival] and 42 other organizations from the last cycle,” he said. “It’s frustrating for everyone involved.”

For Choice, the cancellation reflects a larger systemic issue that requires creative, cross-departmental solutions to address.

“We need to create more community partnerships, sponsorships, outside funding. Oakland is in an extreme budget deficit and can’t support things they used to support. We have to get super creative about promoting and establishing arts and culture in the city, and the city doesn’t have the capacity to do it like they once did,” Choice said.

Choice notes that, increasingly, Oakland events have had to downsize to survive the current fiscal reality.

The Oakland Art and Soul Festival, in particular, has been impacted by change in the city’s revenue sources, including reduced funds from the Transient Occupancy Tax. The city’s financial support for the festival decreased drastically after the pandemic, when it became a one-day festival and had its budget slashed from $120,000 to $20,000, Choice said. While the $20,000 had been approved, its delay presented an obstacle for this year’s event to happen in a timely fashion.

Currently, Oakland faces a projected $129 million deficit. Later this week, Mayor Sheng Thao is expected to announce more cuts when she unveils the budget for the 2025-2027 fiscal year.

Choice, meanwhile, laments the loss of community that comes with the cancellation of Art & Soul.

“Some of our other local festivals are more neighborhood-based. But this is something where you’d see everyone you haven’t seen all year in one place — your old classmates, cousins, friends. It’s like a family reunion vibe,” he said.

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